Zechariah Trevino's mother hugged family members and friends as they walked to the casket at the front of the church in Waurika, Oklahoma, to say goodbye to the 17-year old, who was shot and killed in Fort Worth.
On a screen above the congregation of about 70 people, a slideshow cycled through Zechariah's life: Middle-school Zechariah posing on bleachers with family. Zechariah as a baby, staring seriously at the camera from a hay bale. Teenage Zechariah, touching his forehead to his pet chicken's beak.
"He was a teddy bear," his mother, Erica Trevino, said. "He wanted to be hugged and loved on, even though he was bigger than me."
After the service, funeral-goers released green, red and white balloons in Zechariah's honor. Volunteers provided homemade lunch at the church across the street from the funeral home, and everyone seemed to have a story about Zech that made them laugh.
Zechariah's mom, aunt, grandmother and cousin talked to the Star-Telegram about the impact the Paschal High School student had on countless lives.
"When you meet people, you don't possess them, you experience them," Erica Trevino said. "And I'm so honored and blessed that I got to experience my son. And be his mom."
Waurika, with its approximately 2,000 residents, gave Zechariah and his family a peaceful, tight-knit community after the family left Fort Worth for Oklahoma. Zechariah loved to fish and could often be found at the creek near his home. He attended church each Sunday and Wednesday with his family, and he was known to carry a Bible with him.
But Zechariah was drawn to the city and wanted to make his own way, his mother said. At 17, he moved back to Fort Worth to stay with his grandma and cousin and enrolled at R.L. Paschal High School. He came home often, and he saw his mother every Thursday.
Zechariah started working at Whataburger on West Berry Street, across from the school. At times he worked up to 40 hours a week while maintaining A's and B's in his junior year at Paschal.
"When he got the job originally at Whataburger, he called me and said, 'Mom, you don't gotta work no more. I'm going to take care of you,'" Erica said, laughing. "I said, 'I don't know how we'll be making it on Whataburger income but OK, sure.'"
His grandma usually picked him up from the Whataburger after his shifts and after school, and on Jan. 20 at 4 p.m., Zech and his female cousin, also a Paschal student, waited outside the restaurant for her.
According to police, a group of five teens pulled into the parking lot in two cars and some of them started to yell at Zech's cousin. She knew the group - her sister used to hang out with them. In March 2022, her sister died of an overdose, and the girl told police she believes the group may have been involved. The group was upset about something the girl had written about them on Instagram, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
One of the teens, later identified as 17-year-old Daniel Reed, got out of a car and pulled out a pistol, according to his arrest warrant. The two started to argue, and Reed shot the girl in the stomach. She fell to the ground in pain as Reed jumped back into the car and closed the door.
After his cousin was shot, Zech had the chance to run away. But he didn't.
"I don't think Zech would do it any different," Erica said. "If we did this all over again, he would say, 'Mama, I can't leave her there. Mama, I love you.'"
A second shooter, identified by police as 17-year-old Isaiah Nunez, walked toward Zech and his cousin with a handgun, according to police. Nunez fired another shot at the girl, which missed. He turned toward Zech and shot at him at least eight times, the arrest warrant says.
Nunez turned to the girl, who was lying helpless on the ground, and shot her again in the leg, the warrant says. He got into a car and the group sped away. Within the next few days, Nunez and Reed were arrested on suspicion of murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The two suspected shooters are former Paschal students. A 16-year-old boy accused of driving one of the cars was also arrested - police did not release his name because of his age.
In the face of tremendous loss, Erica has chosen compassion and forgiveness. She said she only wishes the best for the teens accused of killing her son, and she is praying for their mothers.
"It's not OK to do that," she said about the shooting. "That's somebody's son, that's somebody's brother, that's somebody's uncle and father... That's the one thing we got blessed with - this baby."
Zechariah's girlfriend is two months pregnant with their child.
Zechariah's own biological father died from gun violence at 17 years old when Erica was pregnant.
"Zechariah was my rock because that was all I had when (his father) passed. And now I've lost Zech and he has a baby on the way," she said. "But I don't want it to be a vicious cycle. Because their stories are two different things."
Gun violence epidemic
The Rev. Rodney McIntosh, head of VIP FW, is all too familiar with the cycle of violence.
As the program leader of VIP Fort Worth, he and his colleagues try to help young people at risk of being drawn into violence. The core team at VIP FW is made up of men who have been involved in gangs and violence in their past. Their mission, he said, is to stop cyclic retaliatory gun violence.
"We are losing so many teenagers… some of them don't even have mustaches yet," McIntosh said. "We're losing men who haven't seen puberty yet."
From 2016 to May 2022, at least 101 young people of middle- or high-school age died from gun violence in Tarrant County, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram analysis found. At least 19 of the 100 homicide victims in Fort Worth last year were 18 or younger. In interviews with law enforcement, criminal justice officials, defense lawyers, intervention groups and others, several sources said feuds among teens or cliques on social media are too often leading to real-life violence.
Young people are being lost to gun violence on the other side of the gun as well - for teenagers who shoot and kill someone else, their lives are irrevocably changed. For some young people in Fort Worth, violence is a part of life - and they do not know what a future looks like without it. When talking to kids at a school recently, McIntosh said, he asked one 15- or 16-year-old boy what he wanted to be when he grew up.
"He said, 'To be honest, Pastor Mac, I ain't even thought about that. I'm just trying to survive every day.'"
The VIP group started in 2019. In 2020, its members talked with more than 739 people in their communities, including 189 who are at high risk to be involved in shootings. They've interrupted at least 74 shootings, meaning they were able to work out issues that would have likely exploded into violence.
But when a young person dies, like Zechariah, the mission can feel bleak.
"That's a life that was snatched away," McIntosh said about Zechariah. "We will never know the full potential of what that life could have been."
Commitment to change
The day after her son died, Erica contacted a Fort Worth group to immediately get involved in raising awareness about gun violence.
She has experience with morphing her grief into action. In 2008, she lost her young son to sudden infant death syndrome. After his death, she connected with A Memory that Grows, a Texas nonprofit that helps parents who lose a child. In honor of Zechariah, she now hopes to connect with mothers who lose their children to gun violence and fight for solutions.
"I refuse to let them die in vain," she said about her two sons. "If I stop and give up, that's me giving up on them. I want them to be able to know that 'My mom is still fighting.'"
Fort Worth police and city officials have faced mounting pressure to take actions against teen gun violence.
On Tuesday, representatives at a Fort Worth City Council meeting said they were accelerating the timeline of an initiative to combat gun violence because of Zechariah's death. The One-Second Collaborative, pushed by the United Way of Tarrant County and Fort Worth City Council member Jared Williams, is a proposed partnership to support community groups working to end teen gun violence.
At Tuesday's meeting, Williams said the group plans to establish a committee made up of representatives from the city, police, county, Fort Worth school district and United Way by summer, NBC DFW reported.
However, combating gun violence among young people requires the effort of the entire community, McIntosh said. Rather than allowing each shooting to fade from memory, he said, it will take sacrifice, consistency and becoming uncomfortable to truly create change.
"When these families grieve, we have to continue to grieve as a community," he said. "Because I think that as we continue to grieve as a community, we will continue to fight together as a community to bring change. As much as it hurts, stay in this moment. Remember the hurt this has caused as a community."
Coordination of local laws, intervention in schools and community advocacy can help identify at-risk kids before they pull the trigger. For example, McIntosh said, kids can easily get ahold of guns, such as by breaking into cars or through private sales. VIP FW has also not been able to work with many Fort Worth schools to talk directly with kids, McIntosh said, which he hopes will change.
For Erica, she is determined to not let her son's death be another statistic and to turn her grief into action.
"I want to be able to help the next mother who is not as fortunate as we were here," she said. "We have a lot of love and a lot of support. And you give that back."